PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 167, Winter 2012: Vital Indicators

Vital Indicators


Birds, Research, and People at Palomarin Field Station

Vital Connections

Nat Seavy, PhD

Vital Indicators
Director's Column: Separating Fact from Fiction in the Media
Seabirds and Marine Protection
Shorebirds Respond to Changing Bayshore Habitats
Restoration Works!
Songbirds and Global Change
Focus on Hummingbirds
Planning For the Future of Nature
PRBO Highlights
International Shorebird Surveys
Ross Sea Protection
PRBO Wish List

Wilson’s Warbler. Photo by Peter LaTourrette /
Over 200,000 songbirds. Nesting Wilson’s Warblers, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Swainson’s Thrushes, and others. Wintering Golden-crowned Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Year-round resident Wrentits, Song Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows.

What does this generous sampling of coastal songbird communities tell us about the health of natural systems? The answer: more than anyone imagined when a permanent monitoring station at Palomarin was established 45 years ago. PRBO’s work at the Palomarin Field Station clearly illustrates the importance of long-term data, and of birds as ecological indicators, for understanding and addressing the negative consequences of rapid environmental change.

Back in 1965, a group of avian biologists—eager to use bird banding to understand the migratory biology of West Coast songbirds—founded the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. In 1966, the group moved into the Palomarin Field Station, at the southern edge of Point Reyes National Seashore (this was PRBO’s original headquarters). In 1979, scientists at the field station added an emphasis on nest monitoring to track the reproductive success of individually marked birds that breed on nearby study plots.
Palomarin Field Station. Photo by Diana Humple.

To date, biologists have banded and released more than 250,000 birds, including more than 8,200 nestlings before they left their nests. In 45 years, our facilities and programs at Palomarin have improved as PRBO Conservation Science has grown. Our findings have gained widespread recognition and influence. In the last year alone, using data from Palomarin, PRBO staff and interns have published five papers in scientific journals that are read by a worldwide audience of ecologists, ornithologists, and conservation biologists. This is one way that a bird banded at Palomarin can provide information that guides ecology and conservation across the world.

Local Birds, Global Connections

While the original motivation was to learn about the birds, it has become clear that an equally important contribution of our work at Palomarin has been listening to what birds tell us about changes in the environment. One of the most striking examples concerns birds’ localized responses to global climate change. The careful observations that PRBO biologists have made each year reveal that, as average temperatures have risen, the springtime arrival dates of some migratory birds have become earlier here (as in many other regions of the world).

What’s more, the birds we capture at Palomarin have exhibited small but significant increases in wing length and body mass over the last 40 years. This finding provides a window into how, and how rapidly, climate change is affecting birds in western North America. Larger body size would be an expected adaptation to increasingly frequent extreme weather events associated with climate change.

Birds are inextricably connected to the world around them. By learning how birds are changing, we can understand how our world is changing-whether through climate, habitat alterations, or other processes. Clearly, Palomarin affects the world of conservation through the information we gain from birds.

This reach is magnified through the widely renowned PRBO internship program: more than 500 interns from 22 countries have now been trained at the Palomarin Field Station. People who are looking toward a career in ornithology and conservation have opportunities here to master techniques in the field, practice conservation biology, and deepen their knowledge of natural history. This hands-on training alongside PRBO professionals is an experience that many Palomarin alumni credit with helping to launch their careers in conservation (see box below).

In 45 years (and counting!) at the Palomarin Field Station, PRBO has demonstrated the importance of long-term data and of birds as vital indicators of environmental change. Equally compelling is evidence, which Palomarin provides in abundance, of the value of a long-term commitment to training new generations of field biologists and conservation scientists. For continuing important scientific work in an era of economic and environmental uncertainty, our world will need them.

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